Since the telephone was first demonstrated in 1876, it has 1880 switchboardevolved into a vital communications tool, providing the gateway to the world of computer technology and information exchange.

Businesses were the first to use telephones, taking advantage of the new technology to streamline their operations and maintain contact with their suppliers. By 1920, most businesses found it nearly impossible to survive without 1937 model 302 telephonethe telephone, finding it more convenient and efficient than sending messages by hand or by mail.

The early office phone was a black, rotary-dial desk model, the Model 500 series, introduced by Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1949. Each individual phone had its own phone number--there was no such thing as an "extension" in the days before multilined phones. These phones were typically answered by secretaries, and a stenographer listening on another extension would take notes on the call because businessmen still wanted a written record for the files.

NY Telephone ad, c.1957

After World War II, increased demands on the telephone system made it necessary to improve the technology. Radio waves, television waves, and computer data were now being transmitted through wires designed for voice transmission. By the 1990s, the analog-based telephone Simon portable phone and computersystem had been rebuilt around digital technology. In a digital system, information about each sound wave--rather than the sound wave itself--is sent through the wire as a numerical equivalent and then reconstructed exactly at the other end. This new technology enables computers--which are also based on digital technology--to "talk" on the telephone. Multiple phonesToday, fiber-optic cables carry digital signals at astounding rates, and they have become the backbone of the world's information infrastructure.

The integration of communications and computers gave offices a vast range of new telephone services, including expanded use of 800 numbers, cellular phones, and voice mail. Often maligned as cold, impersonal, and irritating, voice mail has taken over many of what were once the secretary's duties.


Birth and Growth of the American Office

Office Equipment

Office Organization

Global Office


Historical Timeline

Lesson Plans


Site Contents

Carbons to Computers Home Page

Smithsonian Institution
Copyright 1998

Smithsonian Education

contact with any questions or comments